Writer David Cain blogs at Raptitude, a blog about getting better at being human.
Author David Cain has written a smart, accessible, enjoyable guide to mindfulness: You Are Here: A Modern Person's Guide to Living in the Present. In the book Cain explains what mindfulness is, why it matters, and how to apply it to your life.
What is mindfulness?
An approach, an attitude, a mindset, a tool, and a practice. It is all of these things. I prefer to think of it as a tool to tame the mind's endless chatter, one that allows us to better experience what's happening right now.
You see: the mind likes to think, chatter, rehash events past and ponder things to come. It also likes to react emotionally to stimulus without taking the time to consider it carefully.
When we have thoughts about emotionally-charged issues, we often feel like we must do something. But there's really nothing present to act on, so we feel compelled to continue exploring it in thought, because it feels wrong to ignore it.
In eras past when humans regularly faced extreme danger (wild animals, marauding rivals), they were on constant alert, ready to fight the threat or run from it—this is "fight or flight." Very useful when life is dangerous and unpredictable, and you may still need it today on occasion. But in safe parts of the world—most people, most of the time, do not need to exercise their fight or flight reflex.
But even when we're completely safe from immediate danged, common stressors like traffic jams, a boss or coworker yelling at you, or even recalling a troubling thought or feeling can trigger this reflex, raising our stress level. Often, once the stressful situation has passed, we realize that it just wasn't a big deal, and reconsider our reaction. One of the main purposes of mindfulness is notice the mind's reaction to stressors as they happen, and learn not to act on them impulsively. Cain's book provides practical advice on how to do this, starting with brief moments of awareness in common activities like while washing the dishes or walking down the sidewalk.
You are here
The book's title refers to a simple notion—that now is all there is, so you might as well be here now.
There are two primary ways in which mindfulness transforms us. Firstly, it helps us to become lost in thought less often. This shrinks our sphere of concern back down to our immediate reality, which is the only place we can actually do anything anyway. This frees an enormous amount of personal energy, which was previously tied up in needless suffering over events that you neither need to nor can control, and perhaps aren’t even real at all.
Secondly, it helps us to see more clearly the little chains of events that cause our moods, feelings and thoughts. We are constantly reacting to life’s happenings in ways that cause us tremendous stress, and many of these reactions would be highly predictable and avoidable if we could become aware of them as they begin to happen. If you could notice, for example, that you tend to experience a pang of nervousness when someone mentions the word “debt”, you could stay mindful of that reaction when it happens, reminding yourself that it's normal and predictable, thereby preventing countless bouts of uncontrolled worry and stress.
Where mindfulness fits in the bigger picture
I see mindfulness fitting in a set of overlapping disciplines and concepts. The more you study and practice forms of mental, emotional and physical awareness, the more you'll see how they're all related.
Mindfulness is at the root.
The most practical, accessible guide to mindfulness yet
One of the main reasons I read is for recognition. I appreciate when writers speak to my own experience and help me understand it. Great literature plays this role, but so can books like David Cain's. As I read along, I find myself recognizing my own mental habits again and again—"oh, hey, I do that" or "that's how I feel when this happens." This reminds me that a) my experiences and feelings are universal and b) mindfulness is a good tool to deal with my chattering brain.
Of all the approaches to mindfulness and related concepts I've seen over the years, starting with Dale Carnegie's classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, You Are Here is most clearly written and most resonates most strongly with my experience.
I give it my highest recommendation.